Joshua Barr (M.A. M.Ed)
Going Down the Reggio Rabbit Hole!
Updated: Aug 3, 2021
Emergent curriculum and the Reggio Emilia Approach!
In our first article on the Reggio Emilia Approach we outlined the difficulty in understanding, transporting and attempting to ‘go Reggio’. As we continue down the Rabbit Hole to go deeper into how the Reggio approach has become so successful we will unpack misconceptions and over simplifications people often fall into (ourselves included).
Like we mentioned before Reggio is complex system that has been developed over half a century of action and reflection. It is the Manchu Han Imperial Feast (满汉全席) of education. For those of you that don’t know the Manchu Han Imperial Feast is an ancient Chinese banquet prepared for royalty during the Qing Dynasty. It is deeply complex with over 300 dishes and even more ingredients. Each ingredient represents an aspect of Reggio Emilia. You can serve one or even one hundred of the 300 elements of the banquet but that won’t make it the Manchu Han Imperial Feast. Someone in another country could try to replicate it by attempting to prepare all 300. Again it won’t be the same. Just like Reggio is comprised of hundreds of ingredients (elements) unique to Italy, the city and each school, the Manchu Han Imperial Feast is unique to China, to its culture and its history. So our objective, if we want to achieve what Reggio has is to learn from and build our own understanding and practice by understanding the different ingredients (elements) that go together and make Reggio work.
To begin we should understand Reggio is an emergent curriculum. The learning investigations are built from the interests of the child/ren. As Edwards (The Hundred Languages of Children) says,
“here is a genuine commitment to emergent curriculum, not a subtle manipulation of the project theme so that it will end up in a certain place. The teachers honestly do not know where the group will end up. Although this openness adds a dimension of difficulty to their work, it also makes it more exciting.”
If your school is bound by a curriculum then you will struggle to really delve deeper into the thinking and workings that Reggio teachers do (teachers actually in Reggio Emilia). There will be times though where maybe the curriculum topic aligns with the interests of your children/students. If so take these opportunities to really explore what can happen when you negotiate the direction with them rather than passively taking them along for the ride.
For educators that do work in an emergent curriculum school it can be difficult to honour the interests, ideas and genuine curiosity of children. Many of us are affected by our own experiences as students and past experiences as teachers, working towards set ideas, topics, themes and pre-determined endings;
“Even when teachers assume themselves to be democratic, their behavior still is too often dominated by undemocratic teaching strategies. These include directives, ritualized procedures, systems of evaluation.” (The Hundred Languages of Children).
It is very easy to observe children playing a certain game that leads educators to fall into set thematic traps. Observing children playing fire fighters becomes a project on ‘community helpers’, a conversation on the moon becomes ‘learning the names of the planets’, seeing a butterfly turns into a project on the ‘insect life cycles’ and children playing with animals evolves into simply learning about ‘different habitats and which animals live there’. These are all topics often found in a curriculum based school and if we are not careful our emergent projects become mere replicas of common themes that often get repeated each year. The emergent projects in Reggio are far more unique, diverse and deeper to the traditional topics found in most kindergartens.
“Either a school is capable of continually transforming itself in response to children, or the school becomes something that goes around and around, remaining in the same spot.” (The Hundred Languages of Children).
To really work in the Reggio way and honour an emergent curriculum requires a great deal of respect, research, reflection and listening to children. Working in an emergent curriculum requires teachers to not know where projects will go or for how long. As Malaguzzi says,
“It is true that we do not have planning and curricula. It is not true that we rely on improvisation, which is an enviable skill. We do not rely on chance either, because we are convinced that what we do not yet know can to some extent be anticipated. What we do know is that to be with children is to work one-third with certainty and two-thirds with uncertainty and the new. The one-third that is certain makes us understand and try to understand.” (The Hundred Languages of Children)
By Joshua Barr